Saturday, June 17, 2000

Restoring glory to the queen of hills

By Nirmal Ghosh

SHE was once the queen of hill stations, beloved of the British Raj, playground of princes, perched between 6,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is clothed in old, atmospheric oak and deodar forests. Even today, the Savoy Hotel soldiers on with its now-dilapidated old world elegance. There are homes called The Grange and Sussex House, and a little above the town, the steep suburb of Landour is home to writers and poets.

But Mussoorie has suffered from unbridled population growth and a building boom, driven by a vigorous tourism industry. One result: the queen has skirts of plastic.

The hundreds of natural drains, rivulets and creeks that scour the hillsides below the town have in recent years been clogged with refuse, largely comprised of plastic materials. Besides being non-biodegradable and hence a toxic threat to the soil and ground water, plastics also block rainwater run-off to spawn the danger of flash floods and landslides , the nightmare of any mountain town.

Mussoorie, with its hopelessly inadequate municipal services infrastructure, was in danger of choking on its own pile of six tonnes of refuse a month, at least 20 per cent of which was simply dumped over the edge of the mountain.


The paradise that tourists found was only on the surface. And the 150,000 tourists on any given day, in a town with a population of just 29,000, was both sustaining Mussoorie and killing it with garbage.

Until a few years ago Vipin Kumar, wondering what to do with the plastic bags he had accumulated in his house from hundreds of routine shopping forays, had an idea.

Vipin Kumar is a lively Mussoorie-born educator who specialises in training teachers and lectures on solid waste management at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy in Mussoorie which trains India’s civil servants. With a degree in biology, he has a scientific bent of mind and loves nature with an enduring passion.

Kumar set about organising ragpickers, poor people who live on the fringes, condemned by birth and circumstance to sort out others’ garbage and to sell ‘high value’ items at a pittance to scrap dealers.

Kumar, 44, has over a couple of years of painstaking effort involving scores of meetings, dozens of seven-hour bus rides to New Delhi and miles of slogging over the steep roads of Mussoorie, organised the ragpickers into groups . He has given them identity cards, had them accepted by and assigned to institutions and hotels, and taught them about different grades of plastic. He has backed this up with a tireless education campaign involving lectures at schools, posters and meetings with citizens’ groups and heads of the many institutions located in and around Mussoorie.

The ragpickers set out at dawn first to sweep through the main bazaar, collecting the plastic and glass waste from the garbage shopkeepers dump outside their shutters. Then they do the round of their assigned areas, some of which are hotels — which have agreed to pay them a monthly rate for the service they render.

They break for lunch and sorting at about noon, resuming at 2 pm and working until 5 in the evening, gathering and sorting plastic bags and bottles, drying the wet bags in the sun because dry bags fetch a better price. On an average day they walk some 6km up and down the slopes.

The work is not new to them, but Kumar provided a key ingredient: the market. Utilising an array of contacts and his own dogged persistence, he changed their lives when he made Mussoorie’s institutions agree to pay a modest sum per month for their services and persuaded a recycling plant in New Delhi to buy the plastic waste at a price far higher than the ragpickers had previously obtained. Overnight, it became worthwhile for them to pick up plastic bags which they previously would leave behind.

In the last three months, Kumar’s 45 ragpickers have sent some 12 tonnes of plastic waste to New Delhi. Each picks up an average of 30 kg of waste per day, depending on the weather which in winter can be daunting, hampering the grueling work which they once did with bare hands but now do with simple implements.

With the proceeds, 22 children are going for preliminary schooling to learn how to read and write — a skill foreign to their parents. They also get complete medical checkups.

"I had to teach them how to behave, how to greet people," Kumar said proudly. "They were totally illiterate, they used to be kicked around by everybody, people called them thieves and ruffians. Now they have some dignity."

The streets and slopes of Mussoorie now look remarkably clear of refuse. But there are still battles to be fought. One of them concerns PET bottles: the clear, tough polyethylene terephthalate that mineral water and some aerated drinks come in. With potable water in increasingly short supply, usage of these bottles is growing. There is one plant in faraway Chennai that could take them to recycle into material for cheap wind-cheaters, but trucking them all the way is too expensive.

Another problem: the alloy bags in which snacks like potato chips are packed. These are nonbiodegradable, and there are no recycling plants in the country that can use them.

So last January, Kumar got a top local district official to write a memo to the manufacturers of a leading brand of mineral water as well as one to a particular manufacturer of potato chips. He gathered 20 kg empty chip packets and several kgs of empty PET bottles, and sent them back to the manufacturers. The memo simply asked what should be done with them. A reply is currently awaited.

‘I’m demanding the participation of manufacturers,’ Kumar explained. ‘No industry should go for purely linear production and dumping. The waste is not waste, it is a resource.’

The district and town administrations are on his side, and he plans to expand his scheme to the town of Rajpur, some 20 km below Mussoorie, and eventually to pilot areas in the bigger towns of Dehra Dun and Saharanpur. His nephew, a civil servant in the plains town of Gwalior, has started a similar scheme.

He showed off another pet project: tree planting.

He squatted in the sprawling grounds of the erstwhile princely estate of Nabha, just below Mussoorie. The current Maharaja, Hanuwant Singh, loves trees and gave Kumar a free hand to rejuvenate his land: the old oak and deodhar forests had been damaged.

Kumar scoured the state for a mix of indigenous plants to recreate a mixed forest which would serve, he said, as a gene bank. He pointed to dozens of saplings and furiously rattled off Latin names, including those of rare trees like the Rudraksh which he got from the Nepal border. Most of the trees have medicinal value, almost all will outlive him by a hundred years.

He has planted, at Rs 10 per sapling, scores of oak and rhododendron; deodhar and chinar; camphor and amla, weeping willows and lagerstroemia. Recreating these rich mixed forests is a dream for him, and he wants more areas to work on.

— Third World Network Features